TORONTO – It’s a ritual of Hockey Hall of Fame induction weekend for members of the selection committee to read the plaques of incoming members.
As chairman Pat Quinn read Brendan Shanahan’s on Friday, he paused to go off script.
“The only player in NHL history to record 600 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes,” Quinn read aloud before ad-libbing. “You can imagine him giving out the fines and the suspensions today.”
That was worth a laugh, just like when fellow class of 2013 inductee Chris Chelios joked during Saturday’s fan forum that “Shanny’s getting too involved” in league discipline. That’s now Shanahan’s job as the NHL’s vice president of player safety.
Playing on the edge during his 21 seasons, Shanahan put up 656 goals and 698 assists, numbers that made him worthy of induction Monday night along with defencemen Chelios and Scott Niedermayer, late coach Fred Shero and Canadian women’s team defenceman Geraldine Heaney.
But commissioner Gary Bettman believes Shanahan’s legacy will ultimately be defined by what he does in an office more than what he did on the ice.
“I think his contributions to the game, based on what he’s doing now, will even exceed what he did in the 21 years that he played,” Bettman said Monday. “He’s making a real mark on how the game is played, making it safer for current players and generations to come.”
Shanahan began working for the NHL as vice president of hockey and business development in late 2009. In June 2011, he succeeded Colin Campbell as the league’s disciplinarian.
Jokes about an NHL “wheel of justice” stemming from some questionable punishments were drastically reduced when Shanahan took over and started doing videos explaining suspensions. The transparency was welcomed by players and coaches, even if not everyone always agreed on the rationale for some so-called “Shana-bans.”
Shanahan has taken his new role very seriously.
“The next generation of players is going to have grown up with a thorough understanding and foundation of these thoughts about how to play the game safely, responsibly,” Shanahan told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “There will be a new standard.”
Shanahan knows the standard has changed since he played. He once was involved in a stick-swinging incident with Bob Boughner and spoke to him after the game to “get our stories straight, to keep each other from getting suspended.”
“Years later I think I admitted to Colin Campbell,” Shanahan said. “That would’ve been leading off the news that night. I wouldn’t have been able to escape that one from Colin.”
Shanahan also once clothes-lined Patrick Roy as part of a brawl between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche and pummelled Michal Sykora of the San Jose Sharks. Still, Bettman called Shanahan “very physical.”
“I’m not sure he was a head-hitter,” he said.
Asked by a fan Saturday if he would’ve changed his playing style knowing he’d one day be responsible for doling out suspensions, Shanahan said with a smile: “No, I would’ve played the same way. I would’ve got suspended.”
When Shanahan speaks seriously about his job, it’s obvious his views on what’s clean and what’s dirty have changed over the years.
“The game’s evolving, certainly, and I do think our challenge on every night is to try and evolve in a way that we don’t lose the physicality of hockey,” Shanahan said Friday. “Sometimes it’s a difficult job to do. We do it as a committee, we do our very best. But it’s certainly a new direction, and sometimes you’ll think back to the way you used to do things and the rules were different. But it’s a challenge.”
It’s a challenge Bettman is proud that Shanahan has accepted.
“He’s probably endured more criticism in the last three years than he did in the 21 years that he played,” Bettman said. “But he’s smart, he’s passionate, he’s thoughtful, he’s articulate, and he’s strong-willed, which are all important elements in doing what is the most thankless job.”
If Shanahan manages to play a role in making the NHL safer for its players, it won’t seem so thankless. The 44-year-old Toronto native doesn’t think the game has more dirty play than when he played.
“I don’t think it is more violent, but I also think that everything is caught in high-def cameras now,” he said. “That’s the new world.”
In this new world, Shanahan is the sheriff. How long he remains in that job will go a long way toward determining his place in hockey history.
“Hopefully a very long time,” Bettman said.